Lost in smoke and confusion, organ screaming, pipes skirling, hands moving without feeling. Given over to the tune, mind removed from any thought of what was playing, letting the music move through.
High up in the livid smoke, the muses screamed with their ancient petrified mouths agape. Beneath them, bent like a disfigured acolyte, Ardentine Wollox was a thin, violently agitated blur of limbs and dancing fingers.
Gorlen backed slowly away from the organ, his feet seeking a path to the door while his fingers kept moving upon the eduldamer. The floor was covered with cast-off clothes, piles of knapsacks, unidentifiable lumps. Suddenly he stepped into the bloated bladder of the smokebag, wheezing and half-deflated on the floor. His feet became entangled. He kicked at it in a panic, shaking it free, and another leathery, flaccid part of the sacking rolled over and wrapped around his foot.
This tangled, deflated mass had the face of his friend Haff.
The mists closed in again, mercifully hiding the sight, but Gorlen could not bring himself to move further. The smoke was full of tendrils, thickening, brightening, condensing out of nothing. There was something in the tune emerging from his instrument that appeared to resonate with the invisible, rendering it translucent then opaque. Like limbs of a gnarled tree with branches everywhere, like a mass of worms, the room filled with stuff. The tendrils reached through the mists, writhing up through the vented skylight; they groped out across the floor, snagged ankles, and fed.
Only his tune kept them from him. He played as if his eduldamer were a talisman against unseen evil. A simple, maddeningly simple little loop of a tune – the sort of inane musical idea that endlessly went around in one’s head for days and days, infecting every other better or more complex conceit. It was so simple he wondered how he had not heard or thought of it before – he wondered where it had come from. But the possible permutations of a few notes were effectively infinite. It always seemed that every possible tune must have been written by now, yet new ones continually appeared—sometimes at the end of his fingers!
This tune, though… He felt it must be very old. It was certainly very infectious.
Already the organ music was altering to accommodate it, surrendering all its complexity to devote itself entirely this one simple theme. Gorlen knew the phenomenon all too well: a simple tune, whistled a few times, would soon lodge itself in the minds of all who heard it, spreading through an entire festival, driving all to distraction. The tune was maddening in that way, although there were hardly any instruments left to play it. The smokebag had fallen silent. The other musicians had either fled or lay somewhere like Haff, with the life sucked out of them. The remaining notes now came from the muses alone. The organ piped and played, having lost much of its complex power. It merely revolved on the idiot loop over and over again in a vacant frenzy.
Gloxy Wollox appeared out of nowhere and rushed at her brother, beating on his shoulders, screaming at him, though the music of the organ was now so loud that nothing she said could be heard. Finally she gripped him by the hair and wrenched him backwards off the bench, but even that did not stop the music. It was pouring from the mouths of the muses now; the carved-stone faces were no more alive than before, but somehow they were singing. The tune would not stop; there was no arresting it; and the room was thickening with the curdled tendons of sound.
Realizing that he could now stop playing, Gorlen stopped.
A moment later, he realized that he could move again, and that he had better.
The air was filling with a jungle of gelatinous cords and cables, finer and finer strands of matter that terminated in the ears and mouths and eyes of his fellow musicians. They were caught in the mesh – the steadily hardening, dying, atrophied mesh. He bolted for the door before the room became impenetrable.
At the instant he found the exit and pushed through, he heard a dry wooden creaking. It sounded like a huge, ancient tree about to fall. The organ stopped.
He paused in the hall. The viny stuff lay thick on the floor, where it had started groping for more music, more victims to drain. But it was stiff and rigid now. From inside the Round Room, the doorway so tightly choked with tendrils that it was like looking into dense woods, he heard soft sobbing. And then very faintly, someone, maybe Ardie, simply whistling and humming the tune over and over and over again, over and over and over again…
With the pit-piper momentarily corporeal, and thus neutralized, Spar climbed.
Its body was like a fat, gnarly tree trunk, erupting with acid pustules, its tettered bark woven and covered with tough, fleshy vines. Soon they would pulse again – soon it would fade back into invisible, vaporous stuff. But for now it was quite substantial.
The goyle climbed quickly, not permitting himself to think how he ought to have flown. Music fell no more from above. He heard no sound at all.
Hand over hand, flesh over stone, he pulled himself up…until hours later he came to the balcony from which Gloxynne Wollox had pushed him.
With the pit-piper now locked in its internal struggle to throw off the musical snare, he doubted Gloxy would be in much of a coherent state herself. There was no chance of finding any more useful information here in the archives, not without her assistance. Certain that essential clues lay hidden somewhere nearby, among all these volumes, he forced himself to think of them no more. He strode empty-handed the rest of the way up the winding shaft and dark stairs to the wide, shockingly chaotic corridors of Wollox Hollow.
It looked as if a storm had ravaged the manor, swept the halls, pulled paintings from the walls. Near where he stood, in the clogged entry to the Round Room, was a strange painting of a man playing an instrument on the lawn of an estate very like this one. It had been torn down from whatever frame once held it, and curiously he bent and picked it up to see if there was anything useful to glean.
He recognized the pit instantly, and the musical theme suddenly made sense, as did the pile of bodies.
In fine lettering, the artist had inked in a very tiny title at the bottom of the frame: Suppression of the Wollox Miners’ Strike.
The painting fluttered to the floor. He hoped that if Ardentine and Gloxy ever returned to their senses, they would study the painting and consider what ruled them. But such lessons were not his to instill. As guardian, his duty was discharged.
Beyond the doors to the outer estate, he found Gorlen sitting in a daze, the wind blowing rain in his face, but very unwilling to get out of it when the only shelter to be had lay back there, in the round house.
“I was waiting for you,” Gorlen said. “I thought. That was you playing through me, wasn’t it?”
“At the end, yes. First it was something else.”
“You played very well,” Gorlen said. “For someone who’s never touched an instrument.”
“My hands—or yours, at any rate—knew what to do,” Spar said.
“And now my feet are telling me what they’d like to do.”
Spar held out a hand, assenting to the suggestion. They headed out into the blustery night, away from the manor, its windows partially lit but mostly choked with clots of solid matter that had not been there previously. Once Spar thought he heard humming drifting after them, but the wind blew it away.
“I was glad for my eduldamer tonight,” Gorlen said. “I had been doubting its worth. Well…doubting my worth as a player.”
It still troubled him that Gloxynne Wollox had paid him so little mind, but that thought was easily suppressed under worries about his musicianship.
Spar said nothing. He thought of his own worth. For what was he valued? What was of value to him? He was a guardian of the earth, a watcher of the deep places. But even among gargoyles he had always felt different and apart.
The shattered emptiness between his shoulders, jagged and empty and raw, created a sense of greater difference now. As he walked in the darkness and in the driving rain, he knew that Gorlen could not see him and therefore could not yet realize the extent of this loss.
It has been said by many, including many goyles, that gargoyles cannot weep. In the dark and in the rain, where none could record it, unwitnessed, Spar proved them wrong.
“Bemused” copyright 2013 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2013.